And you're on

by Jennifer on June 23, 2008

For almost two hours I sat in a big cushy chair at Starbucks with a book, The Outlander, open on my lap. From my spot, I could watch everyone who came in or walked out. I listened to the impossibly long orders for coffee, or something like coffee. I did fly through quite a few pages of my book, but it was hard not to look up at every whush of the door opening or closing. I can never resist a good opportunity to watch people.

I like to make up stories about them, too. It’s gotten easier with time and with age, and my guesses are less fanciful these days and more shaped by the common denominators of mid-life. Marriage. Children. Jobs. Paying for the dentist. An aging parent. Loss. The compromises. The small moments of joy we hold like umbrellas over everything else to keep it all from getting muddy.

It’s fun to invent a crazy story about the man who walks in wearing a suit on a Saturday, speaks with some sort of European accent and talks ridiculously into a gadget attached to his ear. It’s easy to spot the couple on their first date and to toss some made-up details together like salad: Harvard grad (her) meets community college dropout (him) at a concert. They seem mismatched, but he’s got a great bike, and she loves to feel the wind in her hair and he loves how she feels leaning against his back. And, of course (in my telling of it), it probably won’t work out.

You get the idea.

But it’s trickier to come up with a story for the woman in the corner, the quiet one alone, the one who was there before me and seems quite settled into her spot. The details of her appearance are really all I have to go on.

The story I imagine for someone like that never comes in full. Pieces of it light up like fireflies and go dark. Does she like her life? Is she happy in her marriage? Happier with her divorce? When she reads her book, is she able to focus, or does a ticker run across the bottom of the page like on CNN, with the shopping list and what’s for dinner and make a doctor’s appointment tomorrow and when was the last time we had sex? crawling under the lines of prose. Or maybe two lines of a maddening children’s song loop through her mind, ceaselessly.

And what of that look that just darkened her face? Could it mean that she’s just thought of her mother, who is ill, or did she just realize that she can’t remember the last time a whole afternoon stretched out before her, with no one waiting at the end of it, expecting a meal or a basket of clean clothes, folded?

Maybe she feels, most days, as though she’s walking in sand, and too close to the tide line. Or, when she sees the shadow of a plane cross the road in front of her, it makes her ache. That trip to Charleston he promised, postponed. Again.

And now, that one raised eyebrow and a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. Was it a memory, unbidden and random, of an approaching storm and her, standing fearless and rapt at the edge of a field, waiting five minutes longer than she should before running to the safety of the house? The thrill. She had forgotten. These days, she’s all good sense and get inside, there’s a thunderstorm warning. Fearful.

Or was it nothing more than the funny thing her teenager said in the car this morning, a rare light moment?

I enjoy guessing at the inner life of others, but the truth is I wouldn’t want to be in there, in the middle of another person’s thoughts, any more than I would want someone else picking over mine like goods on sale the day after Christmas. The guessing is the fun of it.

Still, beware next time you’re at that little coffee shop in your neighborhood. That woman you see pretending to read? She’s making up all kinds of stories about you. So do something interesting.


Edited: The book I’m reading is The Outlander by Gil Adamson. She writes beautifully and the book is very good. I hope she won’t be insulted by my distraction. It reflects completely on me, not on her writing. It’s just…I don’t get out much, alone, these days. Damn summer.
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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

dragonfly June 23, 2008 at 2:14 am

I do that too, look at people and “figure out” their lives. I used to do that with my parents and brother when we were out, “people watching” we called it. Every time I catch myself doing it I think of my family and smile.

dragonflys last blog post..Please pass the Excedrin.

Hilary June 23, 2008 at 3:49 am

It is fun to speculate. I find that most of my reading time is done on the bus or train, and I can’t help but people-watch in those situations. Consequently, it often takes me a while to get through a book. Outlander is a biggie.. as are the other 4 or 5 in the series.. but well worth the read – if you can seclude yourself from interesting people. πŸ˜‰

Hilarys last blog post..First Rose

Mary Alice June 23, 2008 at 4:32 am

Sometimes I make up stories about people in the restaurant to amuse MM while we eat!

Mary Alices last blog post..Catch and Release

Louise June 23, 2008 at 4:59 am

I love to do this at the pool. I’ll admit I don’t even want to guess about a lot of the people there–the ones whose conversations are so loud I’m positive they want me (and everyone else there) to notice them. But there is always someone. But I don’t always make up stories. If they are interesting people, I honestly try to figure out their real story. (Just the surface version.) The last time I was dead on. As they left the parking lot, their out-of-state cars had confirmed my theories. Even the state(s) were correct!

It’s very much fun. I can’t read books at the pool yet (youngest is too young to be unwatched constantly). It gives me something else to do.

And the Harvard grad? Maybe she likes the way it feels to lean on his back. But my money is what she likes best is the way his abs feel when she is holding tight when he goes 110 MPH down the highway.

Daryl June 23, 2008 at 5:22 am

I do this very often on the bus to the office in the mornings .. I have whole universes plotted out for the regulars … its the occasional new rider that now fascinates me.

This is a really good post, Jennifer .. really good.

Daryls last blog post..

HRH June 23, 2008 at 6:18 am

I love this. I do this. Then I find out that my husband’s parents have been doing this for years. They sit and talk and then….yes, this part is true…My mother-in-law will often go find out the true story. It makes my husband cringe, BUT it is so great! When she is not there we never know if we are right. When she is there she will just go over, strike up a conversation and get the truth out of the poor, unsuspecting soul sitting in the corner trying to read.

HRHs last blog post..Monday Potluck: cue the cowbell…

McSwain June 23, 2008 at 6:22 am

Good writing, Jennifer.

Funny, my mom and I were talking last night, and she was telling me about this old woman who’s a romance novelist. The writer sits and listens to conversations at the gym to get ideas for voice, storyline, character, etc. So you never know who’s watching listening.

McSwains last blog post..

D / Momma June 23, 2008 at 6:28 am

Must be a writer thing. I do this, too, and not to be nosey, mean, meddling, or whatever else you would call making up things about someone else’s life. It’s just like creating a character in a story. You have the general look of the character, and now you have to fill in the details. What’s interesting about them? What brought them to this moment? What crossroads are they facing?

I love the way you wrote about it, and I’m glad that you managed to get away from the house for awhile to have some Jennifer time!

Peace – D

D / Mommas last blog post..Word Salad

Emily R June 23, 2008 at 6:30 am

One more reason for me to avoid Starbucks πŸ™‚

Lisa Milton June 23, 2008 at 8:06 am

You’re my kind of girl. I love doing just that thing, pondering stories and wondering.

Jenn @ Juggling Life June 23, 2008 at 8:24 am

Either D/Momma is right or the whole world is doing it. It is the best when you end up talking to the person and actually find out a little bit about what they’re really like.

Jenn @ Juggling Lifes last blog post..In Which I Am A Total Slug (Or Maybe A Sloth)

Mrs. Chili June 23, 2008 at 8:44 am

I do this a lot in waiting rooms and airports.

Tell me this, though; are you reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander? If so, how can you even manage to tear your eyes from the pages? I ADORE that series, and am looking forward to starting again at the beginning – these are books that I can, and WILL, read over and over with undiminished delight.

Mrs. Chilis last blog post..Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits

Coco June 23, 2008 at 8:55 am

I’ve been writing stories in my head for random passers-by for years. It’s an interesting way to pass the time.

The ones that make me really wonder, and ache, are the homeless people I encounter. The elderly man who looks like a kindly grandfather, out in the summer heat, wearing the same pair of scrupulously clean but frayed jeans and faded denim shirt every weekend. The woman pushing a shopping cart loaded with blanket after blanket, who stops in the middle of the road near where I work to rest in the shade. “Where are your friends? Your family? Your children?” I’ll think. Was it just one wrong turn? Was it a lifetime of them?

This was a great post, Jennifer. Next time I hit Borders, I’ll be sure to do something more interesting than chew with my mouth open for the other Observers trying to write MY story in their heads. Heh.

Cocos last blog post..An Everyday Hero

Mrs. G. June 23, 2008 at 9:03 am

I am a total people watcher-if you ever see a blonde woman eavesdropping on your conversation, it might be me.

Mrs. G.s last blog post..Start Spreading the News

Suzanne June 23, 2008 at 9:32 am

Well, since I rarely leave the house or pooliside, it’s difficult for me to do this. On the other hand, I often wonder about my fellow bloggers…..ha!

Suzannes last blog post..Five Minute Gazpacho Soup

Ree June 23, 2008 at 9:36 am

very beautifully written of course, and I’m the same way – I cannot read in a public place because I’m far too busy watching.

Rees last blog post..RIP Scott Kalitta

Razor Family Farms June 23, 2008 at 10:04 am

The secret to being an excellent writer is observing the world — taking in every aspect of the people and objects around you and then filing them away in great detail — in ridiculously great detail. I was told by a professor that a great writer can tell you what color lint was on the lapel of the person they are writing about.


Razor Family Farmss last blog post..The Legendary Spanish Moss

Julie Pippert June 23, 2008 at 11:07 am

Love this! And not just because I am a rampant people-watcher and imaginer. I suck others into my imagination, too, e.g., out with friends over the weekend we had a couple on date 4 (because sharing food, from the friend husband) but not 5 (not touchy or intimate enough to ahem ahem) and 5 might never happen (no chemistry).

Glad you enjoyed yourself. And thanks for sharing b/c I enjoyed it too.

P.S. I took a dialog class in college and they taught us to go sit and eavesdrop for better writing. Seriously!

Julie Pipperts last blog post..I’m going back to Cali…to BLOGHER!

Akelamalu June 23, 2008 at 11:45 am

I love to people watch too, especially on holiday. I keep MWM entertained with the stories I make up about folk. πŸ™‚

cce June 23, 2008 at 11:53 am

Now that’s time well spent, spoofing on the random yet intersecting lives of others b/c i think it leads us writers to a space where these strangers take on character and have things happen to them that morph into plots. Serendipity. These moments, these people.

cces last blog post..Summer

the mama bird diaries June 23, 2008 at 11:57 am

Come to a Starbucks in New York City. The variety of characters is UNBELIEVABLE. You will never ever be bored.

the mama bird diariess last blog’s my birthday too

Ann June 23, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Ooooh, interesting. I’m going to come hang at your haunt.

I think I do this storymaking the most when I’m out to eat – and I see someone who is eating alone, which always breaks my heart a little bit – and I begin to wonder why they’re eating alone, and all kinds of stories develop from there…

Anns last blog post..My Niece Stole My Headline

SteveCinNM June 23, 2008 at 1:06 pm

All the world’s a stage — and all of the time, apparently.

People are infinitely interesting, and your mental excursions can do nothing but help you hone your skills as a writer. Sadly, though, most people I know are pretty boring, and you may be giving them more credit than they are due (not that that is a bad thing). But, next time I wander into a coffee emporium, I’ll be sure to do something eccentric, just to provide my observers with an intriguing starting point. It’s the least I could do.

Madge June 23, 2008 at 1:55 pm

Hey! I was just trying to have a freakin’ cup of coffee already. Geez, leave me alone.

(as if I would be in your town, having coffee, and you not know it.)

Madges last blog post..

Lisa June 23, 2008 at 5:28 pm

Oh my goodness! I have done that since I was little. I have written numerous short stories of total strangers. Glad I am not alone πŸ™‚

Also–best Starbucks order–a no-fat no-sugar mocha with extra whip cream–I tried very hard not to laugh out loud πŸ˜‰

Lisas last blog post..A Cure for Boredom and an Excuse for New Carpet

Minnesota Matron June 23, 2008 at 6:35 pm

I think about this a lot when I see people standing in line, looking as if they were at death’s checkout instead of the grocery store. My face? Every minute is a gift and joy. That said. .. . some days, either anger, joy, despair or some THING fills this face. The lucky observer who catches that. . .

leendaluu June 23, 2008 at 6:56 pm

I loved this post. I’ve wished for a super duper camera with a telephoto lens so that I could photograph people and then come home and write stories about them….like the 60 year old 6’4″ transvestite in the very vivid dress that was shopping in my store yesterday….oh. the stories that ran through my mind.

leendaluus last blog post..

Sandy (Momisodes) June 23, 2008 at 8:16 pm

I love to people watch.

I did this for hours while single, and living along the beach. And like you, I made up incredible stories and dialog for them in my mind. Although my mind was thinking, people watching often swept my mind to another place, far away from my own troubles. Your post brought me back there. Thank you πŸ™‚

Sandy (Momisodes)s last blog post..Guest post: This Could Be a Bad Idea

JCK June 23, 2008 at 11:47 pm

Yes, you are a natural born novelist, Jennifer. Love these imaginings. Keeps the writing juices flowing!

JCKs last blog post..We regret we are unable to publish it…

Milena June 24, 2008 at 7:24 am

Read this post of yours listening to a song on your driving list called Boston. It was a simply perfect pairing Jennifer. A great read and good music. The older I grow the more I realize that though life offers me many pleasures, these two simple ones always rank high on my list. Today you’ve offered me both.

Dharmamama June 24, 2008 at 12:36 pm

That Outlander sounds *so* much better than the Gabaldon… I had to put that one down, I wouldn’t waste my time with it any more.

I am finding I have quite strong intuitive capabilities, so the stuff I see about people is usually really their stuff, and I feel it, too – so I’m now the one reading, not looking up much. Unless there’s some nice eye-candy.

Dharmamamas last blog post..Roller Coaster Weekend

Dharmamama June 24, 2008 at 12:48 pm

Oh! I just remembered a story, about an improv group. They took over a coffee shop one time… it was hilarious hearing it. (google, google…) Hmm… couldn’t find it on This American Life, but here’s a link that goes into detail:

Dharmamamas last blog post..Roller Coaster Weekend

Deb June 25, 2008 at 4:20 pm

I do this all the time, and when I have enough guts, I ask for their “real” story.

I like to know.

And that woman in the corner? Sounds an awful lot like me.

Debs last blog post..July’s Book Club

Shelby June 29, 2008 at 4:55 am

I so do that! I read this post aloud to my husband this morning. Enjoy your day.

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